Co-Authored by Georges Budagu-Makoko & Kathreen Harrison

Throughout her childhood, Belyse Ndayikunda took for granted that her family would always be with her. Then, when the targeting of young people began in her homeland of Burundi, her parents decided to send her and her older brother to safety in the United States. When she arrived in Portland, she and her older brother were sent to the Oxford Street Shelter and given mattresses to sleep on. She remembers feeling miserable, and vulnerable. The year was 2012, and she was away from what she calls her “village of support” – her parents, childhood friends, and community – for the first time in her life. Ms. Ndayikunda was 18 years old.

At the shelter, a local homeless man befriended her. He told the young newcomer about the mistakes he had made in his own life, about the loss of his job, family, and friends, and his descent into alcoholism and drugs. What Ms. Ndayikunda saw around her those first days was very different from what she had seen in movies from America, and she found it difficult to reconcile what she thought she knew about America with her actual experience in the shelter. For Ms. Ndayikunda, those four days in the shelter were a wake-up call. She realized that if she was not careful to make the right decisions, she could end up in a disastrous situation. After four days, General Assistance (GA) helped them find housing at Bayside Villages, where many students lived. GA also provided them with vouchers for food and resources to guide them in accessing services.

A friend of the family who lived in Portland took Ms. Ndayikunda to Deering High School and helped her enroll. Right away, she noticed many things that surprised her about the American school system: in Burundi, teachers are very authoritarian, and students are intimidated by them. Here, she noticed that students were at ease with their teachers and related easily with them. At Deering, there were 10 to 15 students in a class, whereas in Burundi she had been accustomed to an average of 40 students per class. Students moved from classroom to classroom at Deering; in Burundi, the students stayed put and teachers traveled to them. And then there were the extensive resources available to students and teachers. Everything about the new school seemed amazing.
At first, her low level of spoken English made school very difficult, but she constantly reminded herself that she had to do well, and she studied hard. Gradually, she made progress. Unaware that asylum seekers are ineligible for financial aid to attend college, she applied and was admitted. When she learned she could not attend, her hopes and dreams crashed. Her advisors did not know how to help her. Then someone mentioned that Southern Maine Community College (SMCC) had a program called Path to Graduation for college-ready students, and she was awarded a $500 scholarship. While at SMCC, she met Kristi Kaeppel, an advisor whom she credits for advocating for her, supporting her, and helping her find the resources to continue school. Ms. Kapper moved on to graduate school herself, but not before creating awareness at SMCC of the particular challenges facing asylum seekers. SMCC responded by initiating a special fund.

Belyse Ndayikunda graduated from SMCC after two years and, with the help of Margaret Loeffholz, transferred to the University of Southern Maine (USM), where she received a $2,500 merit scholarship because of her outstanding grades. While at USM, she sought out – and received – money from various private donors, some known to her and others not. For three years she studied and worked, and finally in 2018 she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in math with a concentration in statistics. Ms. Ndayikunda now works at Unum. She hopes to earn a master’s degree and has applied to Unum’s tuition reimbursement program for assistance.

Working while attending school was very hard, she said, but she credited her faith, the good people she met, and her determination for her success. Her advice to others, especially asylum seekers, is to never give up. Consistency, holding fast to one’s dreams, working hard, networking, and knocking on every possible door all played key roles in enabling her to get an education. She added that Americans are very generous and good-hearted, and if you share your story with them, many people are willing to help. She recalled an event she attended where she shared her story as part of a panel. Afterward, someone approached and handed her a check for $2,000 to continue her studies.

Ms. Ndayikunda said she feels sad when she hears of youth who drop out of school. Some of these drop-outs are eligible for financial aid – unlike asylum seekers – and she thinks that they are missing a great opportunity by not pursuing a college education. She is pleased that more people and organizations are now aware of the restriction on financial aid for asylum seekers and noted that special programs are now being created. She said that her graduation day from USM was one of the best days of her life. She understood then that if she could get a bachelor’s degree, with all the financial challenges she was forced to overcome, she could achieve anything here in America. Hard work pays, she said.